Bragging rights on the line Desperate Riders seek vengeance for Labour Day loss to Blue and Gold

After a spirited affair in Regina over the September long weekend, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders meet again for the annual Banjo Bowl at IG Field Saturday afternoon.

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After a spirited affair in Regina over the September long weekend, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders meet again for the annual Banjo Bowl at IG Field Saturday afternoon.

The Bombers (11-1) rallied from behind in last week’s Labour Day Classic, erasing a 14-0 Saskatchewan lead en route to a 20-18 victory at Mosaic Stadium. The Roughriders (6-6) will look to avenge the loss, and will have to do so in enemy territory, in front of a sold-out crowd of 33,234.

Another week of prairie-rival football, in front of a packed house, with bragging rights on the line. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The Bombers rallied from behind in last week’s Labour Day game, erasing a 14-0 Saskatchewan lead en route to a 20-18 victory at Mosaic Stadium. (Liam Richards / The Canadian Press files)

“The rivalry, how important it is to the CFL,” said O’Shea when asked what makes the Banjo Bowl a special time of the season. “And when you sort of have a moment prior to the game, just taking in the fans, packed house, how loud they’re going to be, along with the anthem… it’s always impressive when it’s that loud.”

With that, here are five storylines to keep an eye on in Saturday’s game.

Banjo Bowl, edition No. 18

It’s the 18th edition of the Banjo Bowl, a tradition that first began in 2004 after former Bombers kicker Troy Westwood called our neighbours directly to the west a “bunch of banjo-pickin’ inbreds.” An interesting note, and somewhat predictable, is that the great people of Saskatchewan, including those with the Roughriders, have refused to acknowledge the name.

Nevertheless, the Bombers lead the Roughriders in the Banjo Bowl series, though not by as much as you might think, winning 10 of the 17 games played. Winnipeg has certainly been dominant in recent years, claiming victory in five of the last six meetings, including winning the last two.

Winnipeg has the chance to sweep the Labour Day-Banjo Bowl games for the second straight season and just the fourth time since the back-to-back series was formed years ago.

For the Bombers, a win this year would clinch the season series against the Roughriders, who desperately need a win to stay competitive in the West Division. It would also inch Winnipeg closer to earning top spot in the division for the second straight season.

A lot riding on this one

The Roughriders are getting dangerously close to hitting desperation mode. Once considered to be a lock for fourth place in the West, meaning a crossover through the East, that’s no longer the case.

Drew Wolitarsky catches a pass during first quarter against Saskatchewan on Sunday. (Matt Smith / CFL files)

With just two wins in their last six games, including four straight losses at home, the Roughriders are hovering at .500. The schedule doesn’t get much easier for Saskatchewan in the final six games, either, with a pair against the Bombers and Calgary Stampeders, along with games versus Edmonton and Hamilton.

The Ottawa Redblacks won’t likely catch up to the Roughriders, but at 3-8 following a two-game win streak, Saskatchewan is no longer out of reach. The Redblacks have a much easier road ahead, too, playing six of their remaining seven games against the lowly East, a division with a combined record of 16-29.

It might be premature to suggest this is a must-win game for the Roughriders. In the face of another loss, the hole to climb out of only gets bigger.

A Marc’d man

What a game it was for Marc Liegghio on Sunday. The Bombers kicker not only nailed a 55-yard field goal for what turned out to be the game-winning points, he also dodged a would-be tackler during a punt attempt in the first half that could have buried the Bombers chance of a comeback.

Speaking of a comeback, Liegghio has recovered nicely from a disappointing appearance in Week 10, when he missed a pair of field goals that led to Winnipeg’s first loss. Since then, he’s been a perfect three-for-three on field goals and has made all six of his one-point converts.

I’ve written at length this season about Liegghio’s struggles, so it’s time to offer up some praise for the second-year kicker. You knew there was pressure to have a solid response following the defeat to Montreal and proving he could fight through a rowdy Mosaic crowd last weekend was a significant step in that direction, while also earning trust back from his coaches and teammates.

Now it’s time to run with that consistency, and what better time and place than this weekend. It’s worth noting it was following the Banjo Bowl that Liegghio was ultimately replaced the following week by Ali Mourtada, who was then replaced by Sergio Castillo on the way to winning a second straight Grey Cup.

Marc Liegghio nailed a 55-yard field goal for what turned out to be the game-winning points, he also dodged a would-be tackler during a punt attempt in the first half that could have buried the Bombers chance of a comeback. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Back to Grant

With Janarion Grant sidelined the past two weeks with a groin injury, the Bombers have tested out a few new bodies in the return game. The mix of Nick Taylor, Evan Holm and Tyrell Ford yielded mixed results, with some solid returns blended with some head-scratching decisions, specifically when it came to surrendering singles in the end zone.

That experiment is now over, with Grant healthy and returning to the lineup this weekend. The 28-year-old might not steal the headlines each week, but he’s as reliable as any returner in the CFL, and just as dangerous.

Grant is the only player in the CFL to have a kickoff and punt return touchdown this season, both of which have come away from IG Field. He’s second in the league in average punt return yards (12) and kickoff return yards (29.7).

Starting field position is as underrated a part of the game as it is crucial. The Roughriders have a strong special-teams unit, much like the Bombers, and have had better starting position in eight of their 12 games.

With a raucous crowd on their side, field position will be an important piece to the Bombers pursuit for another victory. Having Grant should make getting there a bit easier.

The Marino effect

The Roughriders finally came to their senses and released defensive lineman Garrett Marino. Over a 15-game career spanning two CFL seasons, Marino had been suspended once for four games, fined three times and ejected twice.

The final straw for Garrett Marino was a late hit that blindsided Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros last week. (Matt Smith / CFL files)

Turns out, the final straw for the 28-year-old Californian was a late hit in the fourth quarter last week that blindsided Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros. Collaros was shaken up on the play, which didn’t draw a penalty flag, but appears no worse for wear. Meanwhile, Marino is out of a job, with CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie all but flat out telling the league’s teams that he wouldn’t register another contract involving Marino.

It’s a notable loss for the Roughriders, as Marino is a quality player and a key piece to the club’s run defence. It’s also a weight lifted from the Bombers, who don’t have to worry that Marino might do something stupid, like he did last Banjo Bowl, with his antics during a post-touchdown melee leading to his ejection from the game.

It will be interesting to see how Marino’s absence affects a dominant Roughriders D-line, a unit that will be without Anthony Lanier for another week. The Bombers have risen up the rankings when it comes to the ground attack, ranked second in the league with an average of 106 yards per game, behind only Saskatchewan, at 108.

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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